“After everything we’ve been through, all the challenges and adversity we faced, I’m so proud of our guys. We had an unbelievable season, coaches as well as players. I couldn’t have asked for any more,” said Chad Smothers, head coach.
An undefeated season. A regional semi-final berth. Record-setting success for a first year head coach. Redemption for an injured senior. Opportunity for his younger brother. Everything was on the line for Leesville Road, who traveled on the road to Garner on Friday, November 18 for the third round of NCHSAA 4-A State Playoffs.
The Pride, with an undefeated record of 12-0, went into Garner with the hopes of knocking off the number one-seeded Trojans, standing tall at 13-0.
Braxton Berrios, sophomore, said, “We knew going in that they were a good football team, but that didn’t affect our preparations. We followed our routine, watching tape and working everyday to improve at practice.”
With thousands of loyal Loonies cheering from the stands, Leesville took the opening kickoff and returned the ball to just short of the fifty yard line. However, after two unsuccessful running plays on first and second down, the Pride were facing third and long, a situation they had so far this season been unfamiliar with.
But no matter. Taking the snap, Braxton Berrios rolled to his right and threw deep down the sideline for De’Rahjai Robinson. A spectacular catch and several broken tackles later, Robinson strolled into the end zone for the early 7-0 Leesville lead.
The stadium erupted. Leesville Loonies of all ages, races and sizes, decked out in kelly green, roared in celebration as the Garner “Blue Crew”, sitting directly across the field, were silent and motionless; they were stunned.
Then, on Garner’s first offensive possession, the Trojans went three-and-out, punting the ball to Leesville Road, who recovered near their own twenty. But a DJ Hunt fumble gave new life to Garner, who punched the ball in from yards out to tie the game at 7-7.
A second Hunt fumble on the Pride’s next drive gave Garner another scoring opportunity, which the Trojans took advantage of, putting themselves up 14-7. For the remainder of the game, the Pride were never able to regain the lead.
Late in the second quarter, Leesville Road was still down 14-7, only now they had a chance to tie the game and swing the momentum. Deciding to go for goal on a fourth down play, Braxton Berrios found Malcom Hitchcock on a crossing pattern for the tying score. Or so it appeared.
A personal foul on the play, an illegal substitution infraction, not only negated the touchdown, but turned the ball over for the third time in the first half. Watching from the sidelines, Austin Berrios, senior, saw how those three giveaways were devastating for the Pride.
Said Austin, “We had been playing relatively well up to that point, aside from the two fumbles, but it seemed like we were finding ways to lose the game. You can’t be sloppy with the ball because against a good team like Garner, penalties and turnovers will kill you.”
Going into the second half down by two touchdowns, Coach Smothers knew the key to a Leesville comeback would be focusing on the two things he had preached to his team all season: strong defense and ball security.
“You have to take care of the ball if you want to win football games, and that’s what we needed to focus on.”
Coming out of the locker room to start the third quarter, Garner drove down the field and passed for another touchdown, giving the Trojans an insurmountable 28-7 lead over the Pride.
Two more turnovers in the second half, including a Braxton Berrios fumble inside the Garner ten-yard line, marked the end of the road for the Pride, as well as the end of the most successful season in school history.
Triggiano, while upset with the outcome of the game, acknowledged all that Leesville Road had accomplished over the course of the season.
“We won the Cap-8. We won twelve games and went undefeated in the regular season. We set scoring records at this school that may never be broken,” said Triggiano. “It may sound cliche, but I don’t regret anything. Even after losing, we still gave it our all and played with heart. This is a special team, and I’m lucky to have been a part of it.”